Tastes just like home: Dining initiative in Singapore breaks bread to counter refugee crisis

9 min read
25 April, 2023

When Ann Moey flips the heavy pot of Maqluba upside down at her table in Singapore, guests are always stunned. The hearty dish found in many Levantine countries is a rare sight in the South East Asian city-state.

It is made with layers of rice, meat, and vegetables in a deep pot which is reversed, in a stagy way, on a serving plate — this is where the dish gets its name, which means "upside-down" in Arabic.

Maqluba is for Ann a conversation starter about Syria and the plight of its people affected by the 12 years-long war.

"Through the culinary experience, participants can taste new flavours not commonly found in Singapore while gaining a deeper understanding and empathy for those who have been forced to flee to seek safety"

Syria is the largest source of displaced people worldwide, with more than five million refugees hosted in neighbouring countries and 15 million — over two-thirds of the population — who fled to other areas of the country.

Maqluba is only one of the dishes on the menu of Yalla! Dining, a culinary initiative Ann launched last October to raise awareness and funds for refugees globally.

Just like Maqluba, refugees are also a rare sight in Singapore.

The country is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention which means that there is no legal framework for protecting individuals who have been forced to flee their homes due to persecution or war.

As a result, Singaporean citizens are relatively shielded from the harsh realities of forced displacement.

“Yalla! is my attempt of raising awareness for the refugee cause through food,” Ann tells The New Arab. “In Singapore, food is a significant part of our culture, and private dining experiences are popular.”

Quintessential Levantine classic, Maqluba
Maqluba is a Levantine classic

Singaporeans often queue up for hours to indulge in their favourite dishes and statistics show that one out of every four people eats out daily.

A culinary experience to empathise with those who have been forced to flee

Ann, a Singaporean with a passion for cooking and storytelling, opens up her apartment to host Yalla! Dining events two to three times a month.

Guests enjoy dishes inspired by the cuisine of five countries that contribute to two-thirds of all refugees worldwide — Syria, Ukraine, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Myanmar — and the proceeds go to supporting displaced individuals in need.

Through the culinary experience, participants can taste new flavours not commonly found in Singapore while gaining a deeper understanding and empathy for those who have been forced to flee to seek safety.

Ann draws on her experience in the non-profit sector in Africa and Asia, where she had the opportunity to “sample a wide range of unconventional dishes, such as BBQ camel meat in Chad and goat's blood larb in Laos.”

In 2020, upon returning to Singapore, she began working for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) as a fundraiser.

After just a few months into the job, while interacting with cosmopolitan individuals with extensive travel and exposure to diverse cultures, Ann was surprised to discover that they had limited knowledge of the refugee crisis.

She was struck by the idea of combining her passion for cooking with her desire to raise awareness about the refugees’ plight in her free time.

She chose the name Yalla! because it holds significance in both Arabic and Singaporean cultures: it means ‘come on, let's go’ in Arabic and ‘yalla yalla’ is a term commonly used in Singapore to mean ‘yes’ or ‘let's go’.

In the shoes of refugees for one evening

Upon arrival, participants are presented with replica refugee cards bearing their names and imaginary countries of origin and host countries.

Yalla! Let’s Eat
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This activity serves as a means for Ann to explain the crucial role of these ID documents in the lives of refugees.

When refugees register in their host country, the cards protect their rights against forced return, arbitrary arrest, and detention.

Additionally, these cards help to keep families together and grant access to education and healthcare as well as the ability to open bank accounts and purchase SIM cards.

As everyone settles in, Ann begins by introducing the displacement issue and offers some tasty Muhammara, a Syrian dip with a spicy kick, made from roasted red peppers and walnuts.

Most diners are surprised to learn about the severity of the crisis, with 103 million people being displaced worldwide, with approximately half of these under the age of 18.

In addition to those classified as displaced, there are also millions of stateless individuals who have been denied nationality which makes it hard for them to access basic necessities like education, healthcare, employment, and the freedom to travel.

"Food is a great medium for cultural exchange and this is a very creative way to let people learn more about this issue"

Indulging in dishes inspired by the top refugee countries

When the guests gather around the table, they are served Aushak, vegetable-stuffed dumplings from Afghanistan, topped with a spiced tomato sauce, garlic yoghurt, and mint.

“While they eat, I discuss how Afghans have suffered more than 40 years of conflict, natural disasters, poverty, and food insecurity. I then answer their questions,” Ann goes on.

This process is repeated for each dish from the five countries, with the host providing insight into the challenges faced by the people in those regions.

When she serves Kajaik, a freshwater fish soup from South Sudan, Ann explains that conflict there has displaced nearly four million people since 2013, with over half forced to flee the country.

Kajaik is a popular Sudanese fish stew, consisting of dry fish and normally eaten with porridge
Kajaik is a popular Sudanese fish stew, consisting of dry fish and is normally eaten with porridge

The next dish on the menu is the Ukrainian beetroot salad, which, the host says, “is always a hit.”

Rather than just piling the vegetables on a plate, she presents them in an aesthetically pleasing way.

“I add a little bit of feta, which is not very traditional, but I let diners know that I have adapted the dishes. Even though I put my own Yalla! Dining twist, I make sure that they still largely resemble and taste like the traditional dishes.”

As the guests enjoy the salad, Ann shifts the focus to the millions of people from Ukraine who have been displaced due to the Russian invasion.

The Syrian Maqluba adds a touch of theatrics to the dining experience. “It's interesting for many guests because they have never seen it before.”

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To round off the culinary journey, Ann serves Duu Fica, a coconut and jaggery dish popular amongst the Rohingya community, as a reminder of the struggles the stateless Muslim minority from Myanmar face.

Over the past three decades, more than a million Rohingya have been forced to flee to Bangladesh in multiple waves.

In 2017, violence in Rakhine State forced over 700,000 people, mostly women, and children, to walk for days through jungles and mountains to reach safety in Bangladesh. Others risked their lives crossing the Bay of Bengal.

This Yallah! Dining series that focuses on displacement is called Breaking Bread, however, in the future, Ann would like to feature a different theme, such as displacement as a result of climate change, and cook food from the top countries affected.

Humanising refugees, “people with aspirations, hopes, dreams”

The level of discussion during dinners varies depending on the interest level of the group.

“I have found that most diners were keen on learning more about the global displacement situation as they asked plenty of very interesting questions,” Ann explains.

“My goal with these dinners is simply to share my knowledge on this very important global issue and to provide a safe and light-hearted space for them to have in-depth conversations.”

The founder says that many guests have a basic knowledge of the displacement issue, often limited to regional conflicts like the Rohingya crisis or the more well-known situation in Ukraine.

“Despite their higher education, studies abroad, and masters degrees, their understanding of the challenges faced by refugees is often lacking.”

After attending the dinner though, Ann says “they leave with a greater knowledge of the issue, which is the goal of the event.”

Shushan Lam, one of the guests, tells The New Arab, “Perhaps our understanding is limited since most of what we know comes from the news and not actual interactions, unlike in other countries that host refugee communities.”

For Shushan, who works as a media producer, Yalla! does a great job of humanising refugees as "people with aspirations, hopes, dreams."

“Food is a great medium for cultural exchange and this is a very creative way to let people learn more about this issue,” she adds.

Yalla! unites diners through shared culinary intrigue and the desire to emphasise with those who lost their homeland
Yalla! unites diners through shared culinary intrigue and the desire to emphasise those who lost their homeland

Ann often finds herself explaining the difference between a refugee and a migrant — a person who chooses to leave — as some people confuse the two categories.

Another common misconception is that refugees flee to wealthy countries, but in reality, according to UN figures, 83% are hosted in low- and middle-income countries like Turkey, Colombia, Uganda, or Pakistan.

Singapore and its support to refugees

“During my dinner events, I inform guests about Singapore's current policy towards refugees, which is a closed-door one,” Ann says.

“While this may change in the future, it is not currently favourable for refugees seeking asylum in Singapore,” she continues.

Although Singapore has hosted displaced individuals in the past, during the Vietnam War, it is currently not a destination for refugees.

Those who arrive in Singapore irregularly are detained until a sustainable solution is found for them.

According to the 1959 Immigration Act, only approved routes and valid travel documents, including a visa, allow entry into the country.

Violations of these conditions are punishable by fines, imprisonment, and even mandatory caning.

The Singaporean government has repeatedly stated that the “country's limited land size makes it unable to accept refugees or asylum seekers regardless of their ethnicity or place of origin.”

Yalla! Let’s Eat
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Instead, Singapore provides humanitarian assistance to some countries to meet the urgent needs of displaced persons and supports local non-profit organisations like Rahmatan Lil Alamin Foundation (RLAF), which offers aid to vulnerable people from Myanmar, Yemen, and Syria.

Ann says universities are also “increasingly also having more talks about lesser-known global challenges such as the displacement crisis.”

While Yalla! Dining may not be able to sway the Singaporean government's stance on refugees, it gives Singaporeans the opportunity to learn more about the plight of refugees around the world while tasting new flavours.

By sharing a meal, Singaporeans can break bread and break down barriers, one dish at a time.

Vittoria Volgare Detaille is a journalist and translator with a focus on the Middle East. After having studied Arabic Literature, she collaborated with the United Nations and with the Italian Press Agency ANSA. She has lived in Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya and Kuwait for more than 10 years